Explore: Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life – a Study by Dr. Jörg Matthias Determann

“Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extraterrestrial life” says Dr. Jörg Matthias Determann in his book Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life. “For example, the Qur’an repeatedly refers to God as ‘lord of the worlds’ and Muslims have combined such notions with global astrobiological research and science fiction.”

Determann is a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar. Originally from Germany, he specializes in the Middle East and scientific culture, including science fiction.  In his book, he argues that while repression, authoritarianism and educational approaches that use rote learning may be responsible for some lack of scientific inquiry, “Nevertheless, even authoritarian countries have produced highly imaginative accounts on one of the frontiers of knowledge: astrobiology, or the study of life in the universe.”


Astrobiology is the search for and study of life beyond Earth. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States began to explore the possibility of astrobiology or extraterrestrial life in outer space soon after they were established in 1958; however, concepts of extraterrestrial life have existed in literature and culture for far longer. For example, the folkloric fantasy tale The Adventures of Bulukiya in The Thousand and One Nights, also called The Arabian Nights and in Arabic Alf Laylah wa Laylah, tells of visiting many realms with intelligent, non-human creatures

Determann describes the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan which was founded a few years before NASA in 1955. Kazakhstan, a Muslim-populated country, became a center of the study of astrobiology.  While Determann notes that many Soviet scientists who conducted research at the center were non-Muslims, such as Gavriil Tikhov who originated the term astrobotany and also promoted the term astrobiology, the Center nurtured the dreams of aspiring Muslim scientists and astronauts.  Says Determann, “In the late 1980s Mohammad Fares from Syria, Musa Manarov from Azerbaijan, and Abdul Ahad Mohmand from Afghanistan all left Earth on Soviet rockets. In 2006, the Iranian – American engineer Anousheh Ansari too departed from Baikonur, becoming the first female space tourist and the first Muslim woman in space.” 

Recently, further explorations into astrobiology are being conducted by the United Arab Emirates with their Mars Al-Amal (Hope) Probe. The project’s mission falls under The Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG) Goal 2: “Characterize the state and controlling processes of the present-day climate of Mars under the current orbital configuration.” This falls in line with MEPAG’s first goal to determine if Mars ever supported life, or still supports life. The U.A.E. program’s mission statement says, “Mars is an obvious target for exploration for many reasons. From our pursuit to find extra-terrestrial life to someday expand human civilization to other planets, Mars serves as a long-term and collaborative project for the entire human race.”

A new discovery by the U.A.E. Mars Hope Probe: Auroras in the Martian atmosphere. Source: https://www.emiratesmarsmission.ae/gallery/images-of-hope-probe/1

Faith and Science

Orientalist perspectives often define Islam as being incompatible with scientific study, even as recently as 2012 when astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson erroneously blamed noted 11th Century Muslim scholar Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali for the decline of science in Muslim-majority countries. In reality, Al-Ghazali is a noted scholar of faith and the sciences.  However, Determann makes a convincing case that science and the scientific imagination have continued against many odds in Muslim – majority countries. He notes the Qur’an allows for the expansion of knowledge. 

Determann pushes back on orientalist views about the impact of Islamic belief on science. Says Determann: “In the Islamic tradition, the miracle of the Qur’an is that you can’t imitate it.  The language is so beautiful. Arabic is a very poetic language; It’s a language of metaphors and it’s a language that allows for much imagination. The Qur’an is not limiting which is wonderful. Instead, it is a text that can make you think and think and think and imagine and interpret and comment. That’s what fascinated me. The Qur’an allows room for expansion of knowledge. As we gain more knowledge, we can still find applicable information in the Qur’an.”

Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, a professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates also addresses the connections between science and Islam in his book Islam’s Quantum Question. He says “A common thread runs through all my intellectual and educational works. It consists of the following interweaving lines: (1) Science is important and relevant to Islam (and to other cultures, of course); (2) science can help make progress not only materially (this is obvious) but also intellectually, culturally and religiously; (3) science evolves, and theology should also progress; and (4) looked at properly, there is nothing (except pure materialism) that can oppose science and Islam.”

Dr. Ali O. Olomi, Assistant Professor of History of the Middle East and Islamic and Global South History at Loyola-Marymount University agrees, saying “There is a long and intertwined history between Islam and the scientific imagination. In the medieval period, Muslim scientists wrote extensive catalogues and encyclopedias of life on Earth often blending the scientific and the imaginative. They were motivated by the Islamic impulse to study the diversity and wonder of Allah’s creation.”

Scholars of earlier years have also articulated the connections between Islam and science and even how Islam supports the idea of extraterrestrial life. One significant scholar Determann mentions is Tantawi Jawhari, an Egyptian religious scholar who is credited with encouraging Muslims to study the scientific basis of the Qur’an.  His message was that the Qur’an provides verses on ilm or knowledge so it should not only be westerners who embrace scientific study.  He also describes the Director of Egypt’s Helwan Observatory Abdel Hamid Mahmoud Samaha’s 1937 lecture on the cosmological ideas in the Qur’an at the Lund Observatory in Sweden where he asserted that, regarding the possibility of life in the universe, “not merely because I am a Mohamedan but also as a scientist I am inclined to believe that such is very probable.”

Science Fiction

“There is no harm in dreaming,” says Emad El-Din Aysha, co-editor of Arab and Muslim Science Fiction – Critical Essays and author of several science fiction stories and essays rooted in Islamic perspectives. “I’m concerned with the applicability of Islamic law in a futuristic setting, Islamic economics, the feasibility of them and what they even may look like. Also bear in mind in Islam that we don’t have this notion that man was created in God’s image, so we don’t have this idea of man playing God either. As for how Islam has contributed to my imaginative thinking personally, in lots of ways. The glory days of Islam in the past, particularly in Baghdad and in Andalus, were the glory days of science so I always want to recapture that in my writing and make the Western reader aware of this, how different our history is as Muslims than European history which had Dark Ages that sadly saw the rise of (institutionalized) religion and decline of science. In Islam we have the notion of ‘mizaan’, balance with a direct reference to the scales of justice, the scales used by a merchant to weigh gold and silver. We are told by God not to be tyrannical with the mizaan and push things in one direction or another, breaking the natural balance of things, the God-given balance that guarantees justice to all, a kind of equitable distribution.”

Determann’s book provides examples of science fictional popular culture in Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan’s first sci-fi film in 1989, Shanee, which depicts an alien coming to Earth and interacting with villagers and Egyptian Hamada Abdel Wahab’s film Journey to the Moon which depicts a lorry driver who accidentally climbs aboard a ship that takes him to the moon.  He also mentions the futuristic collections Iraq 100 and Palestine 100, where writers imagine the countries of Iraq and Palestine 100 years in the future. In the quest for technological advancement, one aspect of science fiction can help highlight societal problems that must be solved. One trend in science fiction specifically in Arab-Muslim literature is that of the futuristic dystopia.  Determann discusses the compelling art of Ayham Jabr, who combines his interest in science fiction with the realities of life in present-day Syria.

Damascus Under Siege 2
Damascus Under Siege-2 by Ayham Jabr

Other recent dystopian science fiction texts and films of note are from various Muslim-majority countries; for example, Egyptian writer Ahmad Salah Al-Mahdi’s Malaz: City of Resurrection,

S. A. Zaidi and Ghanem Ghubash’s films Sons of Two Suns and Aerials, Larissa Sansour’s In The Future They Ate From The Finest Porcelain and Ibtisam Azem’s The Book of Disappearance. The website Islam and Science Fiction features articles on the many iterations of Muslim science fiction. Science fiction can often be an outlet for political expression and societal critique.  These creative works provide cautionary tales of present-day realities and futures that we must avoid.

Meet the men behind Emirati science fiction film Aerials
S. A. Zaidi and Ghanem Ghubash discuss their film Aerials.

Muslim science fiction and popular culture writers who live outside of Muslim-majority countries also center Islam within their work. J. Austin Yoshino, science fiction writer and editor of the web magazine Fresh Pulp notes the importance of questioning in Islam.  He says, “Personally I found the idea of questioning significant when it came to Islam and its place in science and science fiction. At its heart, that’s what science is. Early in my Islamic education, I had instructors who not only encouraged me to question what I was learning, and to interact with it critically, they demanded it. I think it makes many of us natural skeptics but also encourages in us a need to not only question but understand. Given the ubiquitous role of Islam in the lives of Muslims, it’s impossible as a scientist or a science fiction writer to not immediately think of the potential impact of discoveries on our practice of the religion or how it might influence how we see the larger universe.”

Yoshino says Islam contributed to his imaginative thinking through certain key Qur’anic verses. He says of reading the Qur’an, “One of the things that stood out to me, one Ramadan, was the occurrence of this reference to Allah (swt) as “The Lord of the Worlds.” I later came to understand that this reference is made more than 70 times throughout the book. As a science fiction writer I was struck by this idea that God made it known that there were not only other worlds but that He was the Lord of those as well. It made sense that such a signifier would be present in a text and a religion that places so much emphasis on intellectual and educational pursuits. That in his omniscience, Allah would know that a propensity for learning and discovery would lead us to other worlds at some point. And he would want it known that we (humans) would not be outside his purview in traveling to these places. It was then that the convergence of my love for Islam and my love for science fiction was complete. There is the false idea being perpetuated that pursuit of knowledge is antithetical to the pursuit of faith. In truth, these two things are complimentary and compulsory. Again, when looking at duty to pursue knowledge incumbent upon all Muslims, as outlined in the Qur’an, the exploration of science makes sense.”

j. Austin Yoshino (FreshPulp) Interview
J. Austin Yoshino reads from his manuscript Red Mihrab

“In fact,” Yoshino concludes, “Islam has shown me that placing science in a vacuum has always been a mistake. Even now, at this critical juncture of space travel, we are in danger of exporting many of the world’s ills to other planets. Islam represents an opportunity to explore self, faith, and science, all at once. Studying each in the context of the other may make human beings more suitable for scientific undertaking, rather than being blinded by the other human impulses such as greed and exploitation.”

Seher, Associate Editor-in-Chief of The Fandomentals media fandom website and co-creator of the That’s Haram podcast, also asserts the importance of centering Islam when creating or examining fictional works. She says, “studying Islam and learning more about its rich history has only further set an example for all Muslims to do more to learn about their pasts, presents, and understanding what may come in the future. This of course allows for much imagination when writing sci-fi or thinking about anything in a fictional setting whether inspired by or centering Islam.”

New Frontiers – A Convergence of Science and Imagination

While the U.A.E. pursues astrobiological research with its counterparts at NASA and MEPAG, new Earth developments require open and imaginative minds to use science to solve mysteries.  In June of this year, the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report on the presence of Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon (UAP) and that many reported sightings of craft that seemingly defy the laws of physics remain unidentified. One of the main outcomes of the report is that the unidentified craft “may require additional scientific knowledge to successfully collect on, analyze and characterize some of them. We would group such objects in this category pending scientific advances that allowed us to better understand them.” 

Watch the Pentagon's three declassified UFO videos taken by U.S. Navy pilots
Screenshot of one of the Pentagon’s three declassified UFO videos taken by U.S. Navy pilots. Source: CNBC Television

NASA administrator Bill Nelson has recently asked NASA scientists to use scientific methods to examine UAPs.  A statement currently on the NASA website states that “While NASA doesn’t actively search for UAPs, if we learn of UAPs, it would open up the door to new science questions to explore. Atmospheric scientists, aerospace experts, and other scientists could all contribute to understanding the nature of the phenomenon.  Exploring the unknown in space is at the heart of who we are.” 

As for the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, Nelson says, “Are we alone? Personally, I don’t think we are.

Dr. Ali O. Olomi agrees that we are not alone.  He says, “”The Qur’an openly acknowledges the diversity and multiplicity of the existence of life. God is frequently referred to as the “Lord of Worlds”—plural—indicating more than one world. The Qur’an definitively recognizes the existence of hidden worlds teeming with life like the jinn. While some have interpreted jinn as spirits, in actuality they are an alternative form of life. Medieval scholars would extend the idea to postulate life and intelligences existing in the planetary spheres imagining a complicated and living cosmos. In sum, the Qur’an and Islamic thought fully accepts that we are not alone.”

Dr. Nidhal Guessoum, however, agrees that the scientific method is the best approach to examining UAPs. “We scientists have been saying for ages: Do collect data and evidence on these events and phenomena; do analyze everything with an open mind; ignore conspiracy ideas; exhaustively look for earthly explanations; and do not jump to extraterrestrial conclusions. It is extremely pleasing to see this approach reflected in the report.”

Dr. Nidhal Guessoum Talks About Aliens | Know Time Jiffies
Dr. Nidhal Guessoum discusses the scientific basis for speculating about extraterrestrial life. Source: Know Time – YouTube

In Islam, Science Fiction, and Extraterrestrial Life, Jörg Matthias Determann explains that the combination of “immense wealth, technological ambitions, and limitless imagination make many missions conceivable” for some Muslim-majority countries.  

Recent discoveries by the U.A.E.’s Mars Al-Amal (Hope) Probe, along with a prolific international community of Muslim scientists, researchers, science fiction writers, artists, and filmmakers indicate that Islam’s’ golden age continues.  

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